Place: Lago di Garga/Lake Garda
Number of trails: 10+
Predominant riding style: All-mountain/trail
Lago di Garda, or Lake Garda, is the largest lake in Italy, and it makes WIndermere look like a garden pond. There is bike riding all around the lake, but it is at its best at the mountainous north end around the villages of Torbole and Riva. Indeed these villages are so bike-oriented that there is an MTB festival every May in Riva.
Garda is something of a hidden gem – at least for Brits. The place is rammed with Germans and Italians, but English is rarely heard in the bars or on the trails. The resort is unusual in that it does not have traditional uplift – no ski lifts. Instead a host of shuttle bus companies vie for business in the Torbole town centre car park. The biggest and arguably best (most able to get you where you want to go when you want to go there) of these is Luca Bike Shuttle Torbole, run by the rambunctious and ever smiling Luca and his wife Tiziana. The shuttles do not follow a set schedule, but instead go to a range of mountain-top destinations each day. Luca constantly on the phone to various guides chatting about where their riders want to go today. It’s slightly academic, because whichever hilltop you end up on, you’re almost guaranteed a whale of a time on the way down.
During the weekend of the Garda Bike Festival it seems as if everyone in RIva/Torbole is all about the bikes. But as soon as the show is over the two villages return to their somewhat sleepier demeanour. There is still plenty to do, Winds bar in Torbole is swinging every night of the week, and Riva has several bars and clubs. Torbole has a good range of surf/skate shops too and if you need any bike gear Carpentari or Mecki’s will probably be able to help.
Trail finding can be something of a challenge. There are hundreds of miles of marked trails and even more unmarked stuff. Garda was on the front line in World War one, and the mountains are riddled with military trails, access roads and tunnels. This network provides the basis for some of the most interesting and exciting mountain biking you’ll ever encounter. It has been extensively built on by the trail building work of an active band of local enthusiasts.
Many of the tracks are known by different names to different people, what is “Anaconda” to some is known as “The Snake” to others. I struggled to find a definitive site with them mapped or with gps traces for download. Fret not though, guides are plentiful and choosing the right one, who will tailor the day to your riding preferences and abilities will make all the difference to your enjoyment.
The Garda Valley is a glacial valley, and because of how the rock strata lie and how they were cleaved by the passage of the glacier, one side of the valley (the right, as you look north, up the lake from Torbole) is more loamy single-track, with the odd rocky and rooty technical section. Here you’ll find descents such as Tramalzo, which begins with a short sharp climb to a tunnel, and then a long descent on a sweeping rocky track. Watch out for riders and walkers coming up!
The left side of the valley is rockier, and here are more technical descents such as Bocca di Navene and the Coast Trail, which at one point takes you diagonally across a rocky slab. It’s a steep technical section made much more challenging with a very exposed drop to the left. If you go down, there’s nothing much to stop you. In the dry, most decent riders will get down clean. In the wet – rather you than me!
Between Riva and Torbole there is a smaller hill – Monte Brione. Like much of the area, its slopes are bedecked with vineyards and olive groves and cycling is theoretically prohibited. But it is laced with trails, including a former downhill run along its ridge. Beware though; this run was closed due to the 400m vertical drop off to the left…
About the author’s trip to Garda
I timed my visit to coincide with the Sympatex Bike Festival. All of the top bike manufacturers were there in force, and there was a wide range of smaller component stands too. Danny McAskill was even there putting on some pretty impressive sideshow entertainment. And while I wouldn’t suggest you travel all the way just for the show, it makes an entertaining distraction from the riding.
I normally travel with my bike, but decided not to this time in order to take advantage of super cheap RyanAir return flights from Milan Bergamo airport which is just 100km from Torbole. Flights are also available to Verona which is even nearerI rented a bike in resort from a good selection of Cube and Scott bikes. But be aware, most of the best trails have some very technical sections, so longer travel bikes are better suited to the terrain. The slopes are extremely steep too and you’ll find yourself braking hard, for long periods. So make sure you have a machine with modern and effective brakes, I found my hands were getting tired and cramping on the Cube AMS120 29er that had Magura MTC brakes! After a couple of days I switched to the Cube Stereo 650B bike, and I faired much better with the Formula The One brakes it sported. With 160mm of travel, the Stereo was an ideal (but expensive) bike for this resort. The standard steed was the Cube AMS 150, which handled the terrain well. Garda being in Italy, the food is excellent, and regardless of your performance on the hill you can congratulate/commiserate afterwards with some truly great ice cream.
The British MTB scene seems to have overlooked Garda, and it’s a shame, because the region offers world class riding, beautiful scenery, a good social scene and great food. All of this is affordably priced and just a couple of hours from UK airports.
There’s something of a chicken and egg situation though. Few UK providers do bike specific packages to Garda, and because few UK riders have experienced the area, there’s little demand for them to do so. Our group was organised by Michael Cycle, a well known character in the northern UK MTB scene, and a member of the Bogtrotters group who ride out of Lancaster. Michael lived in Italy for 6 years and now spends three or four months per year in Garda, where he helps out on Luca’s shuttles, and then guides whoever wants to tag along down the mountain. He’s a useful contact to have because he seems to know everyone in Torbole and Riva, regardless of whether they are locals or visitors.
CycleActive and Saddle Skedaddle also both offer trips to Garda, although their basic landed cost for a week (you arrange your own transport) is more than I spent in total for nine days including bike hire, flights, food and drink and uplifts. It’s worth considering the options.
I found a few websites that claim that Garda has been voted the “Best Destination in the World for MTB” They don’t say when, or by whom… but it’s a believable accolade. The guys I was riding with are frequent visitors to Les Arcs and Morzine… but after visiting Garda, say they won’t be bothering with those resorts in future. I’m already booked to visit Crested Butte, Fruita and Moab later this year, but there’s a part of me that wished I’d saved money, and spared myself jet-lag and just gone to Garda. My week in Garda was simply the greatest seven days I’ve ever spent on a bike.
How to get there
RyanAir flies to Milan Bergamo, which is just 100km from Torbole. Alternatively fly to Verona.